A Word about our Worship (Epiphany Eucharist)

Most of my work as a priest for the last year and a half has been the establishment & development of a new worshiping community here in Tyler, Texas.

In the Epiphany Eucharist we strive to worship the Living God in ways that are thoughtful yet reverent. We are trying to give folks a taste of liturgy that is ancient and substantial, yet accessible. Just as we don’t worship in Latin(!), so also we look for ways to foster peoples’ ability to connect with what we are doing in the liturgy, and why.

Why do we make the sign the cross, for example, and how and when?

The music in this service is more contemporary than most traditional Episcopal Eucharists.

As for the Scripture lessons, our practice is to include two lessons (a “first lesson,” either from a New Testament letter or the Old Testament or the Apocrypha and a Gospel lesson) and a psalm (or canticle) in response to the first lesson. Of these three readings (including the Psalm) two of the them will match the lesson from the lectionary used by the other services of Christ Church on any given Sunday. In this way the entire Christ Church community is worshiping together to a large extent.

As for the liturgy, the Epiphany Eucharist is (what is colloquially known as) a “Rite III” Eucharist. (See page 400 of the Book of Common Prayer.) However, in an effort not to “reinvent the wheel,” what we are doing is borrowing liturgies from around the Anglican Communion. For example, in Lent we worship with a liturgy from the Church of Ireland. In the Sundays in Eastertide we use a liturgy from Australia. In ordinary time we use two liturgies: one from Kenya and one from New Zealand.

In this way we celebrate our worldwide, sacramental communion of believers!

 

 

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The Gospel According to (the Feast of the) Epiphany

If ever there were a perfect text for the meaning behind the feast of the Epiphany, surely it is the Third Song of Isaiah (Canticle 11, BCP p. 87), taken from Isaiah 60.

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.

For behold, darkness covers the land; deep gloom enshrouds the peoples.

But over you the Lord will rise,  and his glory will appear upon you.

Nations will stream to your light,  and kings to the brightness of your dawning.

Your gates will always be open; by day or night they will never be shut.

They will call you, The City of the Lord,  The Zion of the Holy One of Israel.

Violence will no more be heard in your land, ruin or destruction within your borders.

You will call your walls, Salvation, and all your portals, Praise.

The sun will no more be your light by day; by night you will not need the brightness of the moon.

The Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.

Darkness covers the land; deep gloom enshrouds the peoples. When Mary and Joseph were en route from Nazareth to Bethlehem it was surely the case that darkness and gloom were in control. God’s people sensed that they were still in exile, that “restoration” was a cruel joke, that the false gods and oppressive powers had the upper hand. Into this milieu a totally new kind of king was born.

Nations will stream to your light; kings to the brightness of your dawning. As Anglican New Testament scholar NT Wright ceaselessly points out, this “business” about the “nations” began way back with Abraham. It was then, with Abram (as he was then called) that YHWH first announced that his work in and through his covenant people was to bless the whole world, all nations on the earth. “In you,” God promised the Father of our Faith, “all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” And so it is, that when we see these strange magician-kings bearing gifts to and worshipping the babe in the manger, we are literally seeing the fulfillment of that prophetic thread which is woven throughout the Old Covenant Scriptures.

They will call you the City of the Lord, the Holy One of Israel. Duke New Testament Scholar Richard Hays, in his Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, writes persuasively that the fulfillment of the Old Covenant occurs not simply in the man Jesus Christ but also in his Body, the Church. The New Covenant ecclesia (the Greek word for “church”) in which God’s people meet, no longer in Central Zion Proper, but now decentralized  all over the globe, is this “City of the Lord.” When black people, white people, rich people, poor people, conservative people, liberal people, etc. etc. gather in Eucharistic fellowship with the Baptized Faithful, it is then that the “nations [are streaming] to your light.”

The Sun will no more be your light by day; by night you will not need the brightness of the moon. When I tuck Bella and Ellie into bed each night, just after we finish our prayers, they always remind me to turn on the nightlight (which sometimes turns out to be the light in the bathroom next to their room). However, on those rare occasions when these little girlies persuade me (or their Mommy) to sleep with them all night, this infantile need for a nightlight disappears. In the very same way, St. John tells us in his Apocalypse, “And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Rev. 22:5, ESV)

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Wine in the Morning

One of my consistent findings over the last few years (including over a decade now in pastoral ministry) is that few topics stir up more interest than the topic of alcohol and drinking. This is true for sermons, blog posts, lectures, as well as just casual conversation.

And so it is that I have found myself marveling over the past year or so (ever since I was ordained as an Episcopal Priest) at the mirthful, exuberant experience of drinking wine in the morning.

Now, I only do this once per week, mind you.

And in fact, it only happens on Sunday mornings (though I’ve heard of priests for whom this experience occurs in a more quotidian fashion).

But every Sunday morning, with few exceptions, over the last year or so, I have drunk wine in the morning. And not sissy wine. Not “small” wine. Rather, 18% alcohol (that’s 36 proof!) Tawny Port.

And, interestingly enough, it only happens at the altar of the cosmically propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world. That is, it only happens at the table of eschatological feasting, where, with all the saints and angels, we celebrate the victory of God over all our enemies, sins, and fears. That is, it happens only at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.

Now, granted, when I drink wine on Sunday mornings, I’m not drinking it alone. Far from it: there are masses of co-celebrants who drink in the tangy-sweet liquid of surprising joy. However, I am left to consume all that remains in the chalice, that vessel the beauty of which is solely designed to laud the priceless nectar it contains.

And so there I stand, Sunday after Sunday, at this altar / table of torture / joy, called on to consume all the blood / wine that remains in the sanctified goblet. And consume it I do, Sunday after Sunday.

Sometimes there is not so much left.

Sometimes, however, two of the largest gulps I can manage are required to do the job, and on these Sundays, my head swims with mystery.

The mystery of love made drink, the mystery of wine made blood, the mystery of a God who chooses to intoxicate his Beloved as a way of making them more sober, more sane, more serious about what Life is all about.

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Tourist or Participant? (Religious Art & the Church)

At the gracious invitation of the Tyler Museum of Art, I recently gave a lecture there entitled “Christians Then & Now: Religious Art and the Christian Church.” This event was held in conjunction with the exhibit, “Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum.”

Abstract: “When it comes to approaching Christian art, there are really two different approaches. The first is the approach of the spectator, the tourist, someone viewing the art from the outside, as if the art were an object, an inert item. That is one approach, and it is an approach which I am going to suggest is connected with what one thinker calls ‘the disenchantment of the modern world.’ The other approach is that of the participant, the member, the one who belongs. What I suggest is that that approach … might have something to do with the ‘re-enchantment’ of the postmodern world.”

You can podcast the talk here.

(Note: the audio quality on the first couple of minutes is not great. My apologies.)

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The Fecundity of Walter Ong

I am currently in the final stages of discerning a possible opportunity to begin doctoral work at the University of Dallas under the esteemed postmodern medievalist Phillip Rosemann. As a part of our ongoing dialogue designed to culminate in a final decision (mutually discerned) to apply to this program or not, Professor Rosemann invited me to read Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong. In so doing he correctly perceived, on the basis of our discussions so far, a great interest on my part for texts and authors related to genealogy, or the intellectual developments which have led western society and culture down the road it has taken in particular toward secularism and modernity.

I must say that the Ong book is among the most original books I have read in a while in its fecundity and heuristic value, rivaling even Pierre Hadot’s work in its ability to shed light upon our cultural and intellectual predecessors, showing how they viewed the world and why.

Whereas much of Hadot’s work focuses on the “schools” of ancient philosophy (Stoicism, Epicureanism, etc.) and shows how they organically lead to major historical strands within Christianity, Ong takes as his point of departure the “pre-literate” culture makers of the Homeric poets and bards, whose description of the world, as is the case with all pre-literate (ie, oral) thought leaders, is decisively shaped and determined by the form of their discourse. In a world which knew nothing of writing (let alone an alphabet or still less moveable type and the printing press) their description of the world was cast in terms of formulaic units of text (eg, repeated patterns of subjects, verbs, and objects), repetition of events, epithets (eg, “crafty Odysseus,” “the wine-dark sea,” “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”). Just as important, their “genre” (to be horribly anachronistic) was epic narrative, which we would identify as closely related to poetry, given its conformity to strict patterns of meter or scansion.

This book reminds me of the phrase of Alfred North Whitehead who spoke of the “simplicity on the far side of complexity.” The explanatory power of Ong’s thesis (which builds on the work of, among others, Marshall McLuhan, Eric Havelock, and Milman Parry) to explain why the ancients described their world they way they did is staggering. For example, there is the simple matter of memory (a topic given ample attention by Ong). Why did the ancients rely so heavily of formulaic expressions, epithets and repetition in their rendition of important events? (Why, for example, is there so much repetition, say, in the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 or in the Abraham cycle of the same book?) Why, further, did they not cast their reports in ways more amenable to the modern, “scientific” mindset? Before one delves into complex matters of historical development, there is the simple fact that they were just trying to remember the account being given. Think about life with no writing at all: of course “tools” such as repetition, formula, and epithet would be of great value. (Note that I am here presupposing that the Bible has an oral provenance which precedes its being committed to writing in the Hebrew language. This is an assumption shared by Ong.)

To take this a bit further, consider again the structure of the creation account of Genesis 1. Why is it structured in terms of six days? Given Ong’s thesis, it would be a great mistake not to include in one’s answer to this question that the communal guardians of the story were simply trying to remember an ancient narrative, to continue the story in the living memory of the people. This is the case regardless of whatever else one might want to argue about the creation story of Genesis 1, any account of Genesis 1 (seeking either to undermine it or to bolster its validity) must take these factors into account.

Briefly I want to list some other areas to which this book is particularly relevant:

I have already hinted at the area of Biblical criticism.

I have already alluded to the genealogical import of the book.

Plato. Ong highlights the deep ambiguity in Plato’s posture toward writing as opposed to orality: in the Republic he banishes poets from the city but then in the Phaedrus and elsewhere he extols the beauty and value of oral dialogue, complaining that writing will lead to a loss of memory.

Rhetoric. Ong shows how, paradoxically, rhetoric both presupposes writing (Aristotle could have never developed the loci communes without the mental structure afforded him by writing) and is eclipsed by (that especially intense form of) writing (known as alphabet-based moveable type). The Romantic movement, itself utterly dependent upon moveable type as well as a level of interiority which only a deeply literate culture could achieve, was the nail in the coffin of rhetoric.

Depth Psychology. In a fascinating discussion of Freud, Ong shows how the depth psychology which he spawned is utterly dependent upon literary developments which could only be achieved in a highly literate culture, for example the development of the round character. (The characters of oral narrative are by necessity “flat,” eg, Odysseus, Adam, Abraham.)

Derrida. In addition to interacting with Derrida’s reading of Plato viz a viz speech and writing (a crucial issue explored in Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing), Ong masterfully, provocatively, and simply shows that what Derrida does is to downgrade oral discourse so that he does not have to deal with it. If orality is stricken with the metaphysics of presence, then Derrida is liberated to deal only with the written text, and to attempt to argue that the text is all there is. Page 162 is the best (and most concise) summary of Derrida I’ve seen.

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Questioning our Worship (X): why so much repetition?

This is part 10 (the final installment) of a 10-part series.

A few weeks ago I had a riveting conversation with a man here in Tyler, a prominent academic, about liturgy and worship. “Episcopal liturgy is boring,” he honestly expressed. “It’s not exciting; I never learn anything new in the liturgy.”

And then, just last week, I was honored to be a part of another conversation about church and ministry and worship, this time with a couple of local Starbucks baristas, one in her twenties and the other probably in his 30’s.

They extolled the worship at their church, because (unlike the local megachurch they had once attended but then had left) the worship was not over-programmed. There was far less of a sense of manipulation and infinitesimally planned, staged, and choreographed performance.

“At our new church, the worship is free. If the Spirit leads, then we might keep on worshiping for hours,” she said with a deep sense of satisfaction.

I’m really grateful that, having been in Tyler now for ten months, it seems like I’m at the point that people are willing to have real, authentic conversations with me. These two examples above have been particularly important because they center on the great strength of our Anglican tradition: worship.

In these and other discussions (including in my Christian Formation class), I have used a couple of different analogies to help folks imagine what the purpose and point of the liturgy might be. (For Thomas Aquinas, analogy is perhaps the foundation of his whole theology.)

The first is language learning. How does a small child (one year old, two years old) begin to learn language? Does she learn it from a book? From an owner’s manual? From a Power Point Presentation? No. Instead, the little one is thrust into an already existing community (which, by the way, she did not choose). Then, over time and with lots of repetition, the muscles in her tongue and lips begin the difficult work of forming habits. (Habit is a key word for thinking about what the liturgy is.) In this way, the child learns, gradually, over time, and with fits and starts, how to say, “da da,” an utterance which eventually gives way to the fully formed “daddy.”

What are we doing in the liturgy if not learning a new language, which will then form us into a different way of thinking and living (Rom 12:1-2)?

A second analogy comes from ancient Roman military practice. When the Roman armies would move into a new territory of battle, they would always set up their camps in the exact same way. The bunks and the latrine and the fire place and the kitchen were always in the same place in the camp.

Why did they do this? To be sure, efficiency was one reason. But in addition to that they knew that what the soldiers needed was a measure of stability, familiarity, and even comfort in a disorienting, chaotic, and stressful situation.

Today more than ever we live in a world (even here in Tyler) which is more fragmented, more rootless, more anxious than ever. One more entertaining and distracting venue is about the last thing we need. As Neil Postman wrote well over a decade ago, we are “entertaining ourselves to death,” primarily as a way to escape the stressful anxiety of the world we live in.

We don’t need more stimulation; we don’t need more dopamine. We need a space of stability and rootedness where we can rest, where we can be formed into a new set of healthy habits will prepare us to worship God for all eternity.

For more, listen to Fr. Matt’s Christian Formation podcasts, accessible at www.christchurchtyler.org.

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Questioning our Worship (IX): “Baptism: why water, why babies?”

This is part 9 of a 10-part series.

When you hear the word “salvation,” what do you think of?

Many modern people, both in the church and out, imagine (in a way quite foreign to the thought world of the Bible) “salvation” to be some sort of mystical “zapping” of the soul such that, after the magic “zapping,” one now has an unbreakable and unquestionable connection to God.

On the contrary, however, when a first century Jewish person imagined “salvation,” he or she would have thought of images very earthy and mundane: lots of flowing wine, the fatted calf roasting on the altar, lots of children and grandchildren running around, good land to live on and to work, justice and mercy and material blessing for the poor and the outcast. One thinks of shalom, embodied life in the Kingdom of God.

It should therefore come as no surprise that, when it comes to “salvation” in the church of Jesus Christ (who, after all, was a first century Jew), such blessing comes to us through ordinary means: the vibrating vocal cords of a preacher, printed words on a page, bread and wine.

Baptism is a case in point. When God chose to create a rite to ingraft us into the community of God’s people, he chose water as a primary means to do so. Why?

There are too many reasons to list, but a perusal of the “Thanksgiving over the Water” in our baptismal rite (BCP 306) is a good place to start.

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water.

Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.

Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage

in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus

received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy

Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death

and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.

Water is central to the creation story, the exodus story, the Jesus story … therefore it is central to our salvation story.

But now for a more taxing question: why do we baptize infants, in addition to adults?

In my Christian Formation class at Christ Church, we are discussing four arguments for infant baptism:

1. The argument from redemptive history: we perform this rite because an analogous rite was performed in the old covenant: circumcision.

2. The argument from ordinary means: if salvation is not a zapping in the heart, but rather comes to us through ordinary means, then this practice makes sense.

3. The argument from corporate solidarity: scripture teaches that salvation is primarily a “community thing,” and only secondarily and “individual thing,” so infant baptism should be seen in that framework, as a way of bringing a little one into the community of God’s people.

4. The argument from prevenient grace: if God chooses us before we choose him (as 1 John 4:19 seems to imply), then it makes sense that we have a ritual which gives expression to that fact, as infant baptism surely does.

For more, listen to Fr. Matt’s Christian Formation podcasts, accessible at www.christchurchtyler.org.

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Questioning our Worship (Part VIII): “C’mon, is the Bread really the Body of Christ?”

This is part 8 of a 10-part series.

Over the years as I have had an ongoing conversation with Isabella, my seven year old daughter who is a budding theologian, about what is going on in the sacrament of Holy Eucharist, particularly in “the service of the table,” the communion service.

After all, Bella and I wonder, what is going on with the bread? Why do we call it “the Body of Christ?”

One way we have discussed this, which has been particularly fruitful and enjoyable, is in terms of the “three givings or gifts of the Eucharist.”

First God gives to us, the human race also known as “Adam,” the good gifts of grain and grape, and this is the first “giving,” the first gift, the gift of creation.

Now grain and grape are good, but God has asked us (see Gen 1:28-30) to take them, and to make them even better, to transfigure them, bringing them “from glory to glory.” And so, we, human beings created in God’s image, take the grain and the grape, and we transfigure them into bread and wine. In obedience to God, we (“Adam”) cultivate the earth.

Now, in the Eucharist, what do we do with this bread and wine? We don’t eat and drink it, at least not yet. What we do is we give it back to God. Think about all the language of “offering” in the Communion service: “… these, thy holy gifts, which we now offer unto thee …”; “… and here we offer and present unto thee …” This language of “offering” brings out the oblationary aspect of the Eucharist.

And this is the second giving, the second gift. God receives our gift and then, what does he do with it?

Now, bread and wine are good. But God takes these gifts, he transfigures them, bringing them to a better state of glory, and now they “become” something even better: the body and blood of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Now, keep in mind that, historically, there are three different senses of “body of Christ.” There is 1) the “typological body” (the soma typicon) which was “literally” nailed to a cross and “literally” buried in the grave, etc. Then there is 2) the “true body” (corpus verum) which is the Church, the living members of the Body of Christ. Finally there is 3) the “mystical body” (corpus mysticum) of the consecrated bread of the Eucharistic Rite.

Is this consecrated bread “really” the body of Christ? It is, indeed. It is his body because is it ritually connected to his “typical body” and to his “true body” the Church, the “living stones” gathered at the feast. Because of the first two “bodies of Christ,” the bread is more than just bread. It is a sacrament of the whole world, already but not yet transfigured and transformed into the very life, the very body, of Christ.

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Questioning our Worship (VII): Why Sacraments?

This article is part 7 of a 10-part series.

In his magisterial For the Life of the World, Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann begins his articulation of the sacramental life with the statement, “Man is what he eats.”

Think about it. Even our narrative of God’s work in the world begins with a story about eating. The man and the woman in garden (imagined collectively in Genesis 1 as “Adam”) are somehow restless, somehow wanting more than they have received. And so what do they do? They eat. They grasp after some thing God had made, and they put it in their mouths, chew it, swallow it, and assimilate it into their very bodies, their very selves.

Fast forward to the end of our story, the last two or three chapters of St. John’s Apocalypse. Here again, what do we see? We see an amazing scene of a feast. In fact it is the very best kind of feast: a wedding feast! What better reason to celebrate than the joining of a man and a woman in the deepest possible love, the deepest possible union.

So we see, in the beginning and end of our story (not to mention all along the way in between: see Isaiah 25:6 as one of countless examples), that the idolatrous, gluttonous eating of Adam has been transfigured into the faithful, joyful, satisfying celebration of the New Adam, together with his Body and Bride.

In light of all of this, can it be any surprise that at the center of our lives lived before God, we find ourselves eating at a table with our brothers and sisters? More is going on at that weekly feast called Holy Communion than time or space permits me to develop right now, but suffice to say that, since God’s salvation (think “shalom”) is for our whole selves, body and soul, it is only fitting that he put his abundant, indestructible life into us not only through words and ideas, but also through food. Or, better (as Peter Leithart has written in his Blessed are the Hungry), through “love made food.”

And when it comes to Holy Baptism, we find a similar reality. God made us not only as individuals, but as members of community. As I told the youth confirmands recently, we are like a jigsaw puzzle, designed to “fit together” and to make a beautiful mosaic which is bigger than any one of us. In light of that, of course it makes sense that God would give us a ritual which includes us in God’s love not just as individuals, but as a larger community, called to “image” God’s own communal life, his loving dance, of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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Does the Bible tell us to worship this way?

This is part 6 of a 10-part series.

I have spent the last five installments in this series discussing our liturgical worship which we as Anglicans perform. My next question is rather simple, but profound: “Does the Bible tell us to worship this way?”

Well, yes and no. One the one hand there are passages such as the following:

In Isaiah 6 we behold scene in God’s throne room / temple in which we see that confession and absolution precede sending out into the world.

Nehemiah 8 gives us an example of the public reading of Holy Scripture in which God’s people stand in unison to hear the Word proclaimed.

In the Words of Institution (Matt 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; 1 Cor 11) in which Christ instructs us in the particular actions to perform in the Service of the Table, or Holy Communion.

The Book of Acts gives us snapshot after snapshot of first-century worship in which we see the preaching of the Word and the breaking of the bread, going hand-in-hand.

Revelation 4-6, in which we are shown a worship scene in Heaven which gives us many images and precedents for us to implement in our worship of God.

As you can see, the Bible is full of useful instruction on how we are to order our lives of worship. And yet, nowhere in Holy Writ do we find something like a manual or a “how-to” guide for worship. Why is this?

I can think of several reasons.

First, God does not tell us explicitly how to worship him because we are free in the Spirit to figure it out for ourselves. After all, God wants us to be mature and discerning in our decision making, not like little children who must be given direct instructions all the time (Eph 4:13).

Second, the liturgy of the Church predates most or all of the New Testament texts. One of the oldest liturgies of the Church we have, The Didache, is dated by contemporary scholarship to around the year 100 AD, which means that Christians were worshiping in the way it prescribes at least as early as 60 years after the birth of Christ. (The Didache is the same in basic shape as most liturgies used in the East and Western churches of “The Great Tradition” to this day.) That is, the liturgy is older than much of our New Testament Scriptures, a realization which makes sense when one remembers that the first Christians were mainly of Jewish descent.

Third, and related to the second reason above, “faith comes by hearing” (Rom 10:17), which indicates that the Holy Scriptures are primarily something to be heard, not something to be read from a book. That is, the Holy Scriptures are first and foremost a liturgical thing. They are not an instruction manual worship; rather, they are intended to be used in the worship, as worship (which is why something like 80% of the BCP is composed of Scriptural texts)!

Fourth, Scripture itself presents us with multiple examples of what can only be called “oral tradition:” Luke 1:1-4; John 20:30; John 21:25; 2 Tim 2:2; 2 Thes 2:15. The Church has always held that it is from this “source” that much of our worship is derived and passed down, and not simply from the Bible alone.

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Invitation to a Holy Lent

Rarely do I post my sermons onto my blog. However, I am doing so in this case, partly due to several conversations I have had over the last couple of days.

I preached this at the 6PM Ash Wednesday service at Christ Church. The epistle was 2 Cor 5:20b – 6:10 and the Gospel was Matt 6:1-6, 16-21.

A couple of nights ago something happened that seems to happen to me about, oh, once a month on average.

An that is, I had an intense bout with insomnia. It was me against insomnia, and I lost. 1AM, 2AM, 3AM … the clock keeps ticking until … until the sun comes up and with it my 3 year old daughter.

Now, I’m not saying that a night without sleep is the worst thing in the world. Certainly compaired with shipwrecks, beatings, imprisonments, riots, and hunger … an occasional night of insomnia is not that bad.

St. Paul was no stranger to these things and more. Why does he mention them in today’s epistle reading from 2 Corinthians? What’s more, why does he speak of these things as if they are somehow something which comes from the hand of God?

Is St. Paul some kind of massocist? What’s going on?

We get a hint near the end of today’s reading, where he begins to throw out several different paradoxes of the Christian life:

  • how, somehow in the midst of his sorrow, he finds deep and profound joy
  • how his life is shot through with death, and yet in the midst of the death he is more alive than he ever thought possible.
  • how he is poor & dispossessed, but somehow in the midst of this poverty he is is rich;

See, these are the paradoxes of the Gospel: riches in the midst of poverty; joy in the midst of sadness; life in the midst of death.

How can these things be? Is this just crazy talk?

One of my favorite films of all time is The Neverending Story….

You see, brothers & sisters, Jesus Christ is not just some guy that we read about. The life of Jesus is not some narrative that we hear about every Sunday or even read about in a dusty old book.

Rather, the narrative of Jesus – his life, his suffering, his death, his resurrection – these are things that we inhabit. His story is a something that we get sucked into.

His life becomes are life; his suffering becomes our suffering; his death becomes our death; his resurrection becomes our resurrection.

Henry Nouwen puts in this way in his book The Selfless Way of Christ. [Quote Nouwen.]

And don’t you see? This is the first reason why we do Lent. It is a way of learning, little by little, to die. The church fathers spoke of the Christian life as preparing for a good death.

Because, you see, apart from death, there is no such thing as resurrection. This is why we give things up during Lent. This is why we intentionally make our lives a bit more difficult, a bit more inconvenient. It is a way of entering into the sufferings of Christ. It’s a way of sharing in his sufferings & death, that we might share, also, in his indestructible life.

But there is a second reason why we do Lent. And you heard it a moment ago from Deacon Stine’s mouth, and it is this: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

The question of Lent is this: what is your treasure? Is it your career? Is it your body image? Is it having healthy children? Is it food & drink?

What is your treasure, really? What is your pearl of great price, the thing that if you lose it, you can’t be happy. When you lose it, all of the sudden it gets kind of hard to breath. When you lose it, you begin to act like Gollum in the LOTR, or like an alcoholic who can’t find an open liquor store.

What is your treasure?

The wisdom of Lent is that the Church (beginning about 1100 years ago) is making a way for us to wean ourselves off of all earthly treasure. It is a way of ridding our lives of the stuff that does not really satisfy.

You see, we’re talking about desire. I’m reminded of CS Lewis who said that our problem is not that our desires are too strong (though this is the charicature of Christianity that the world dispenses to people). Our problem is that our desires are too weak. We are far too easily pleased.

We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, we are like ignorant children who want to continue making mud pies in a slum because we cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a vacation at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

What are we doing in Lent? If you think about it, it’s the opposite of massocism. It’s really the cultivation of desire. True desire. Strong desire. Rightly ordered desire.

In Lent, we are weaning ourselves off of the stuff that doesn’t satisfy. We are learning to depend on God. We are learning to rest in him, to lean on him. To make him our one thing needful.

Only then can his power come into our lives. Only then can we gain the strength to resist temptation and live like THE FREE WOMEN & MEN WE WERE CREATED TO BE.

Only then, as we participate in his suffering & death, we will rise with him, entering into his indestructible life.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the HS, Amen.

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Bridge Beer, Bridge Church

I suppose that one of the things I learned from my almost 4 years as a Starbucks barista was the fun of introducing customers to new things: new coffees, new pairings, new ways to drink tea, etc. (Actually, I have always loved to do this. Even when I was a little kid I liked to experiment with drinks, for example & 7Up — not Sprite — with various fruit juices, and then share my new discoveries with sisters and parents.)

Recently here in Tyler, an area somewhat beer-challenged (though I love many things about Tyler!), I have enjoyed sitting at a bar somewhere, and starting a conversation with a Bud Light drinker (for example).

“Bartender, give him a Fireman’s Four on me, please,” followed by a discussion about the ways this beer is superior to his former go-to.

Another good beer in this situation would be New Belgium Sunshine Wheat, but, alas, I’ve not seen that one (especially on tap) in these parts, east of Dallas.

In other words, Fireman’s Four and Sunshine Wheat are good examples of bridge beers which can help a person transition from beer which, having little redeeming value, can only be called “cheap” to a truly wonderful beer, rich in flavor and full of body.

Another good bridge beer is Shiner Bock. I have seen many a beer drinker enhance their quality of life by moving from cheap beer to robust stouts and porters by way of Shiner. (Shiner Bock to Shiner Black to a good stout is a natural trajectory.)

Now, just as there are bridge beers, so also there are bridge churches. In my journey the PCA was just such a church. I was blessed to get a taste of liturgical and sacramental worship in the PCA in Austin while still retaining the sense that I was rooted in the evangelical world.

But over time (to make a long story short) I needed more. I needed to go deeper. I needed the full experience, the full body, the full depth of layer and subtlety.

Now, as an Episcopal priest, I have the joy and privilege to be forming a new worshiping community of young people in the context of an Episcopal Church (kind of like a church plant but with fewer of the intense challenges that accompany that monumental project).

One of the things going on with the “Epiphany Eucharist” is this idea of bridge worship. What we are trying to do here is to provide access to the liturgy and sacramental life of the church for folks for whom this way of worshiping the Triune God is quite foreign and awkward.

Just as (for Calvin) God “lisps” in the Incarnation, so also we are wanting not to “dumb down” the liturgy, but rather to implement creative ways of making it more accessible, more reachable, more natural.

Just as a Bud Light drinker usually has trouble going straight to Old Rasputin or Young’s Double Chocolate Stout or Dogfish Head Raison d’etre, so also many folks have trouble going straight from secular culture or megachurch culture (which are basically the same thing, I think) to the Rite I Eucharistic Liturgy.

I would love nothing more than if, after a year or two of folks worshiping with us in the Rite III Epiphany Service, they were to come up to me and say, “You know, I have really enjoyed and grown from this Epiphany Eucharist over the last many months, but I think I would like to try that Rite I Service downstairs.”

“Great!” I would respond, thinking to myself all the while, “mission accomplished.”

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Importing the World into the Church

The Eucharist is, quite literally, a re-membering of the body of Christ. His scarred, fish-eating resurrection body (known in the ancient church as the soma typicon or “typological body”) which hung on the cross, becomes the living members of his true body (corpus verum), you and me.

Theologians call this “participation,” but as is painfully obvious, there quite simply are no words to describe this. In a way which transcends the “one flesh union” of my wife and me, we quite simply are members of Christ. We are his body. We are his body for the world and for the world’s life. Which is why the Eucharist involves a third body as well: what the ancients knew as the “mystical body:” the corpus mysticum. This bread, together with the wine, imports the world into the church: the world of harvesting, the world of threshing, the world of trade and commerce, the world of civilized humanity created as God’s image-bearing cultivators of his good world.

And so, do you see? As members of his body, we are enacting the world’s true culture and civilization. We are brining about the new world of the living, victorious Christ.

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Anglican1000 Conference: some modest thoughts

A couple of friends have asked me to share my thoughts about this conference.

Anglican1000 is a yearly church planting conference (which just ended) which was held at Christ Church Plano, a parish in the northern suburbs of Dallas which left the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas a few years ago. (The rector, David Roseberry, who planted the church in the mid-1980’s and grew it to become the largest parish in the entire Episcopal Church when it exited that church body, then led the church into the Anglican Mission in the Americas, and then subsequently changed affiliations to the ACNA.)

Some thoughts:

1. Praise God for the missional energy and excitement which is spreading in this group. The planting of biblically-based local churches can only be good.

2. It was kind of a surreal experience, on the other hand, being in the midst of a group of folks who are forming a reactionary or alternative church body, in opposition to a more liberal one. This was the air in which I lived and moved and had my being for about a decade in the Presbyterian Church in America, including several years as a pastor. The temptation for such a new body to define themselves against the “apostasizing ones” is absolutely undeniable, as is the potential arrogance and self-congratulation which go along with that.

3. It was also surreal to hear Tim Keller in this group. Keller’s rich, nuanced, thoughtful, culturally savvy theological engagement (which I have been studying for a decade) was soaked up by them like parched desert soil soaking up a shower of life-giving rain.

4. I noticed a tendency in the group (there were perhaps 500 church planters and other interested parties in attendance) to push for a more confessional Anglicanism, something I had known about previously at a more theoretical level from Dr. Philip Turner, who has argued against a confessional framework against Stephen Noll from Trinity School for Ministry. Several folks with whom I spoke explicitly argued for this, the need for a more confessional commitment as something that will bind the church together in unity. I continue to think, however, that this is not classically Anglican, and, quite frankly, that this makes this group tantamount to the PCA (especially since one can find great liturgies all throughout the PCA).

5. Connected to #4 above, this conference has deepened my commitment to catholic liturgical practice as the only way the Church can withstand the onslaught of modernity. (To play devil’s advocate for a moment, the strongest argument against this posture is the global south: that is, a non-liturgical christianity could well outlast and outflank modern secularism by continuing to take root in Africa and other 2/3 worlds countries, which then continue to bring this evangelical faith back to the post-Christian west.) It is clear that for these Anglican brothers and sisters at this conference, it is not the liturgy which binds the church together in unity. As a result one sees wildly divergent ways of worshipping among the church plants and a longing for a more robust commitment to confessional standards.

5. I did attend one workshop during the conference put on by a group in New England (led by Bishop Bill Murdoch) that is embodying a “new monastic” way of practicing intentional community that was truly encouraging, motivating, and inspiring. God willing, I will implement some of these practices in my ministry, and the worshipping community that God is forming, in Tyler.

All in all, I am grateful to God for doing a new thing in this group, and that “denominational” disputes cannot stop the work of God in the world. However, as a liturgical catholic Christian who embraces a “communion ecclesiology” (along the lines of Rowan Williams, Radical Orthodoxy, the Windsor Report, and John Zizioulas) who enjoys the oversight of a godly bishop, I am glad I am not directly numbered among them.

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The Multigendered Body of Christ

Inspired by a recent Facebook post from my friend Cynthia Nielsen I am reminded of an amazing passage by Graham Ward in his Cities of God (tied for the best book I read in 2010).

The body of Christ is a multigendered body. Its relation to the body of the gendered Jew does not have the logic of cause and effect. This is the logic which lies behind those questions, ‘Can a male saviour save women.’ This is the logic of Hegel’s description of the relationship between God and the Church.

As one who disagrees with Ward at the end of the day on same sex issues in the church, I nevertheless find his logic here compelling.

In fact I often think of Ward and this book during the service of Holy Communion, at the altar rail during the Distribution of the Elements. Frequently I will give a consecrated wafer to a woman saying, “The Body of Christ for you, my sister,” but then, before I finish that phrase, I am now giving a wafer to a man, calling him “sister.” It is a powerful reminder / suggestion to me, enacted during the liturgy, of the way sex and gender are deconstructed in the church.

Of course what I’m saying here presupposes the theology of the Three-fold Body of Christ, promulgated among others by Henri de Lubac.

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Postmodern Critical Augustinianism

My notes from John Milbank’s “Postmodern, Critical Augustinianism,” found in his The Future of Love: Essays in Political Theology (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009).

  1. Christian Theology is no more justifiable, no more rationally vindicated, than any other narrative or system. Thus theology is in full agreement with intellectual postmodernism, which is about a “thoroughgoing perspectival historicism” which sees all perspectives as “a strategy of power.”
  2. Note: “thoroughgoing perspectival historicism,” with which Milbank agrees, also relativizes all modern science, and all historical criticism (as someone like Dale Martin is quick to point out).
  3. So is this undecideability all that can be posited? Not quite: the difference between the nihilism implied by infinite, equally valid perspectives and Christian theology (which always lives the possibility of achieving an internal suspicion of “notions of definably fixed essences in its approaches to human beings, to nature, to community, and to God”) is that nihilism’s perspectival historicism necessarily enshrines conflict (Milbank’s “agonistics”), whereas Christian theology, rooted as it is in the practice and community of the church and in the Trinity, actually subsumes and incorporates difference. (Of course, in this way, the community of the church images the diverse community of Father, Son, and HS.)
  4. What makes this approach “Augustinian” for Milbank is the former’s analogy to music which we find in De Musica. Theology is “musical” in that the coordination of difference into a beautiful, harmonious whole. Also memory is key to music, since the various notes & parts only “work together” as we remember the notes & parts which give way to other notes & parts.
  5. What makes Christian theology interesting and perhaps different, however, is that it “can only be explicated by Christian liturgical practice:” “… The Christian God may no longer be thought of as first seen, but rather as a God first prayed to, first imagined, first inspiring certain actions….”
  6. Therefore, the only ultimate “foundation” for Christianity is (the liturgical practice of) its community, the church.
  7. Other than this, there is absolutely no superior validity or justification for Christianity, given modernity’s understanding of rationality.

Conclusions:

  1. Gospel is politics.
  2. Christian practice is prior to Christian theory.
  3. Any attempt to ground Christian theology (over and against any other perspective) which loses sight of 1 & 2 is doomed to fail from the start.
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Questioning our Worship (III): “Why is worship so boring sometimes?”

This article is part 3 of a 10-part series on Episcopal worship and liturgy.

The Series Introduction is here.

As we come to the third in our series of questions about Episcopal worship, we turn to a practical matter which many people struggle with: boredom in worship. After all, if worship is not entertaining or at least stimulating, why bother?

Such thinking is the product of our secular, market-driven culture, and is flawed for many reasons. To take just one reason, this line of thought is illusory (and therefore dishonest), in that it cannot deliver what it promises. Consider the alternative lifestyles on offer to us modern consumers. Whether one’s particular lifestyle revolves around online video gaming or virtual communities, golf, physical fitness, the great outdoors, academia, or the club scene in downtown Austin, boredom and “let down” inevitably ensue. This is a fact of life.

Consider the realm of relationships, perhaps with a sibling, a friend, or a spouse. All relationships have “ups and downs.” My relationship with my wife, for example, is full of vibrant life and energy. And yet, do you think that Bouquet is never bored with me? Of course she is; this is just a part of life.

The real problem, though, is not the boredom. The real problem is with a world and a culture which pretend to provide endless thrills. I am reminded of what CS Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, where he says that the thrill of romantic love is like a spark, designed by God to get a long-term love relationship up and running, sort of like the spark plug of an engine.

Once the engine, however, is ignited by the spark, then what? Folks who are expecting “the spark to never die” find themselves ditching their spouses or lovers, trying to find someone more “sexy” or “thrilling.” Not only is this kind of behavior dysfunctional, it is non-sustainable and deeply damaging to others.

Indeed, as Lewis goes on to point out, there is something better than the spark: the long-term, deep and steady running of the engine or the relationship. Much of my life, personally, over the last ten years or so has been precisely about this issue of learning to live a life “beyond thrills.”

Worship has been key here. The purpose (the Greek word here is telos) of worship is not entertain or to stimulate, or even to make us feel better about ourselves. The purpose of worship is to put us into real and living relationship with God and the reality of his inbreaking kingdom. Often times this does in fact end up make us “feel better.” To put it another way, it “stacks the deck” in favor of health and happiness.

However, the health and the good feelings are merely a bi-product of our worship, and my feelings are an unreliable barometer of the reality of what’s going on in worship. A much better barometer is faith.

Why is worship sometimes “boring?” One reason is that, as we have seen in our previous “questions,” worship is a discipline, the cultivation of habits which do not come naturally. In addition, though, worship is sometimes “boring” because we have been conditioned by our culture always to expect thrills, and also because, sometimes, what we perceive as boring is in reality the best thing for us.

But I close with a thought similar to the one with which I opened. I would challenge people to name any healthy and sustainable practice or activity in our world that never seems boring. Work? Sex? Food? We live in a broken world which will never fully satisfy us all the time, and is it OK to admit this.

And sometimes, when we admit the boredom and come face to face with it, it vanishes away and God visits us with his presence in truly transformative ways. Even He can’t do this, though, unless we show up and participate in his presence, in worship.

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Questioning our Worship (II): Why ruin my weekend?

This article is part 2 of a 10 part series written for my church newsletter. Go here for the intro, and here for Part I.

“How was your weekend?”
 
Every Monday morning, as the parents of St. Richard’s pre-schoolers file into the narthex for Monday chapel, this is the question du jur. Usually the answers contain summaries of Saturday outings, perhaps a child’s birthday party, maybe a sick family member, or a date with the spouse. Occasionally, though, someone will mention church: “Church was really great; our pastor preached a really good sermon!”
 
Now, I of all people rejoice when folks approve of their pastors’ sermons. And I don’t want to make too “loud” of a point here, but I am often tempted to respond, “Wow, that’s great! But … I asked about your weekend.”

 

Surely such an odd response would produce blank stares of consternation. And yet, the underlying point is valid, even if unsettling: we don’t go to church on the weekend! We go to church on Sunday, the first day of the week.

 

About 10 years ago I started asking my nephew (around 5 years old at the time), “Why do we go to church on Sunday?” The programmed response (taught to him by me!) came back, “Because that’s the day Jesus rose from the dead!”

 

And so it is. In chapter 20 of St. John’s Gospel, the risen Christ makes three appearances to his discouraged and confused followers, and each time, the writer is at pains to stress that the risen Lord comes to his people on the first day of the week. (See verses 1, 19, and 26 of John 20.) In precisely the same way, and for the same reason, the earliest church we know of – the apostolic church of the Book of Acts – gathered to break bread together not on the “weekend” but on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7).

 

There are some powerful implications here upon which to meditate, especially during this season of Lent. First, as Christians we enter in to joyful worship and rest before we work. This is to show that all of our work, indeed all of our lives, should and can be permeated by rest and worship and joy.

 

Second, as theologians down through the ages have pointed out, the first day of the week is also the eighth day of the week. (It is significant here that circumcision in the old covenant took place on the eighth day, which is one reason many baptismal fonts are octagonal in shape.) That is, the first day of the week, Sunday, is the day of new creation. Now that Jesus has risen from the dead, there is a new creation in which we live and work and love. God has triumphed! This is his world. As reigning Lord, he is bringing his purposes to fruition in his own time. Hence, we worship on Sunday, the first day of the week, the day Jesus rose from the dead, conquering all our enemies and dysfunctions and sins and fears.

 

For me, this so often means that I must “rest by faith” or “feast by faith.” Which is to say that Sunday worship, setting apart this one day of the week for this “royal waste of time” (to borrow a phrase from theologian Marva Dawn), is actually a kind of discipline (both for me individually and for my family). Even when I am all burdened with stress or anxiety, I am called – especially on Sunday – to “let go” and to rest in God, knowing that it is his job (and not mine) to make everything right. Indeed, knowing that I am not God is a great relief, and this fact makes it possible truly to rest! 

 

Now, for a over-scheduled person in our hypermodern world, this is a very strange mindset, is it not? Indeed, it is. Maybe that’s why the New Testament describes us as “strangers and aliens.” Perhaps that is why St. Paul exhorts us to “be transformed by the renewing of our mind” into radically different ways of thinking and living.

 

And as our frenetic, volatile, violent, unsustainable culture teeters along the precipice of its own decline, God’s faithful people are quietly and compellingly modeling a better way to live. A way of rest and peace. A way of faith and festive joy. A way which begins not on the weekend, but on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week. 

By going to church on Sunday, we are not “ruining our weekend.” We are, in fact, saving the world.

 

 

 

 

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Adjusting to a Presence, not a Seminar

Aidan Kavanagh on the continuity between God’s gracious and revelatory act in the liturgy and his gracious and revelatory acts in the old covenant as well as the person and work of Jesus (from his On Liturgical Theology):

It was a Presence, not faith, which drew Moses to the burning bush, and what happened there was a revelation, not seminar. It was a Presence, not faith, which drew the disciples to Jesus, and what happened then was not an educational program but his revelation to them of himself as the long-promised Anointed One, the redeeming because reconciling Messiah-Christos. Their lives, like that of Moses, were changed radically by that encounter with a Presence which upended all their ordinary expectations. Their descendants in faith have been adjusting to that change ever since, drawn into assembly by that same Presence, finding there always the same troublesome upset of change in their lives of faith to which they must adjust still. Here is where their lives are regularly being constituted and reconstituted under grace. Which is why lex supplicandi legem statuat credendi.

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Questioning our Worship (I): Why go to Church?

This article is part of a larger series, the introduction to which is here.

I recently had a conversation with a neighbor of mine about going to church on Sunday.

When he found out that I am a “pastor type” he apparently felt the need to justify why he does not really believe in going to church on Sunday. “I can have ‘church’ at home,” he said. “Don’t you agree?”

“Well,” I responded, “certainly lots of people feel that way, and it kind of makes sense, I guess. But I think it is important to consider what the Bible says about things like that.” I went on to allude to I Peter chapter 2 by saying, “One of the images that the Bible gives us of God’s people is that of living stones.”

I continued by saying that if you look at a stone wall of a building one of the interesting things is that the stones are resting upon one another. That is, the stones need each other. A single stone cannot make a wall.

A similar dynamic comes into play when we consider the biblical image of “many members, one body.” Here the many members come together to form a whole organic unity, a complete body. An eye, or a spleen, cannot hope to constitute a healthy human body in all its complexity, as St. Paul teaches in places like I Corinthians 12.

It is the same way with “going to church” and the Christian life. In general is not possible for only one person to worship God by herself, if she never gathers with the community. Our private devotion and meditation (“in your prayer closet”) flows out from the worship of the gathered community, from the “work of the people” (which, as we saw last month, is what “liturgy” literally is).

The bottom line here is that in the Christian life, we need each other. “There are no ‘lone ranger’ Christians.”

I want to bring out, however, a second aspect to all this. There is another reason why staying at home on Sunday to read our Bible (or to watch a “televangelist” on TV) is not full Christian worship in the way the Bible describes it.

What are we doing when we worship God? The collects in our Prayer Book which we say over and over every Sunday give us a strong hint. Almost every one of them ends with some version of “through Jesus Christ … who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit….” You see, worship, at its heart, at its core essence, is a participation in the life and love of the Holy Trinity. It is as if in worship we are entering into a stimulating conversation or a beautiful dance which has already been going on between three Persons who deeply love each other. This loving community hospitably invites us into their joy, into their peace, into their glorious life.

But reading the Bible in my armchair at home, as important as that is, is not conducive to this kind of fellowship with the Divine community, if separated from the worshipping life of the people of God. When I read words on a page in my armchair at home, there is no conversation there: it is just “me, myself, and I” with static words on a page. But in worship on Sunday it is all about conversation, dialogue with God in and through other people. In the responsive psalm the people dialogue with the choir. In the confession and absolution we dialogue with Christ. After Jesus summons us by his Word in the sermon, we respond in conversation in the word of the Creed.

In this way, we are caught up into a Great Conversation with the Divine Community in a way that just cannot happen in my armchair at home. The real purpose of my armchair at home, and the real purpose of my Bible reading, is to re-member and to extend the Great Conversation in which I was caught up last Sunday.

In a sense, then, worship is prior to Scripture in that worship provides the context for Scripture. This makes sense historically, as well, when we realize that the continuous worship of the new covenant church actually predates the writings of the New Testament Scriptures.

The Bible is tremendously important, but its true home, if you will, is not primarily my armchair at home or my home office or study, but rather in the liturgical worship of the church. Out of this fountain, the rest of our Christian life flows.

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The Current Reality of the Anglican Covenant

See here for ++ Rowan’s explanation of the Covenant, and its final form which is now being disseminated to all provinces in the Communion.

See here to read my bishop’s comments in support of the Covenant and the Windsor Process.

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Questioning our Worship (intro): Why Liturgical Worship?

The following is an article I wrote for the people of my church.

As a relative newcomer to the “Anglican Way” and the Episcopal Church, I have lots of friends and loved ones who view the liturgical worship of the Episcopal Church with puzzlement and confusion (sometimes mixed with boredom). “Why all the pomp and circumstance?” they often ask, with glazed over eyes, perhaps in not so many words. Some of these friends are still in more “evangelical” churches such as non-denominational “megachurches” or the Baptist church like the one just around the corner from your house. Some of them, quite frankly, are not in any church at all (hence I think of them as more “secular types”).

Perhaps you can relate to this experience of mine. Perhaps you have brought friends to Christ Church and they have been confounded by (what they perceive to be) the lofty pageantry our worship. Whether it is the bishop’s mitre (one friend at my ordination service exclaimed, “I can’t believe bishops nowadays really wear those hat thingies!”) or the procession of the choir and altar party at the beginning of the service, the liturgical aspects of our worship can seem deeply foreign to modern people.

So why do we persist in doing these strange things? After all, perhaps our church would grow faster if we focused more on entertaining people. Maybe if we stopped fussing about all this liturgical stuff, we could get busy doing “real work” like feeding the hungry or assisting the poor.

Good questions, all. And I think that if we are not asking them and struggling with the answers, then our Baptist and megachurch friends might actually be in a more healthy place spiritually than we are!

In light of all this, I want to introduce you to a series on liturgical worship which I will be doing in The Crucifer during 2011, called “Questioning our Worship” (see below). I hope that you will take the time to engage in these and other questions you have about our worship at Christ Church.

  1. Question #1: Why come on Sunday if I can read my Bible at home? (The role of community in worship.)
  2. Question #2: Why ruin my weekend (I need to sleep in on Sunday morning!)? (Sunday as Day of Resurrection.)
  3. Question #3: Why is Worship so boring sometimes? (The role of discipline in an entertainment culture.)
  4. Question #4: Why all the standing & kneeling? (Worshipping with our Bodies).
  5. Question #5: Why all the Words, Scripture, & Creeds? (Anamnesis as re-membering the Story.)
  6. Question #6: Does the Bible tell us to worship this way? (Worship as prior to Scripture.)
  7. Question #7: Why Sacraments? (The Importance of Christology in Worship.)
  8. Question #8: C’mon, is the Bread really the Body of Christ? (Anglicanism on the Eucharist).
  9. Question #9: Why water in baptism, and why babies? (Anglicanism on Baptism.)
  10. Question #10: Why so much repetition? (Worship as the development of habits which train us in virtue.)

For now, though, I wanted simply to discuss this strange word “liturgy.” What exactly does this word mean, and where does it come from?

The word “liturgy” comes from two Greek roots. The “lit” part comes from a Greek word that means “people.” The “urgy” part derives from the Greek ergon (think of an “ergonomic chair” which helps one perform work more effectively). So “liturgy” means, literally, “the work of the people.”

This idea reminds us of the words of I Peter 2:9: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood.” When St. Peter wrote these words, he was not writing to some elite class of “super spiritual” people, and he was not writing only to priests or bishops. He was writing to “ordinary” Christians just like you, who have been baptized into Christ, and who are members of his body by virtue of that baptism and your faithful participation in the Gospel.

As priests, as a priestly people, our primary work or service, then, is to worship God, and this is why we worship the way we do.

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Advent & Spiritual Sobriety

Why is it that Advent is not merely a time of mirthful exuberance? After all, the event we are anticipating and waiting for – the birth of Jesus – is a happy event.

Advent is, to be sure, a time of joyful expectation, but it is not just that. It is much, much more. It is tinged, it is colored with a certain sense of “Lord, have mercy on me.” Why?

To realize why this is, consider the attitudes of the two main figures which Christians have associated with Advent for the last 1600 years. First, consider John the Baptist, known in the Eastern tradition as “John the Forerunner.”

Was John exuberantly excited about Jesus? I am sure that at one level he was, but the impression we get is that John was also deeply shaken by the coming of this Jesus. He said, “When he comes, I will not even to worthy to relate to him as a slave would to his master: I will not even be worthy to untie his sandals.” He echoed the cataclysmic picture painted by Isaiah, a picture which is breathless in its anticipation of justice and salvation, but which also senses the shaking of the foundations of everything we think we know. When this Messiah comes, he will turn our worlds upside down; he will cut us to the quick.

Profound joy, mixed with deep and sober penitence.

Consider the Virgin Mary. Was Mary excited about the Redeemer of her people whose arrival was imminent? I am sure that at one level she was. But she was also barreled over with penitent humility. “How can these things be? … Here I am, your slave; have your way with me, according to your word.” Sure Mary was prostrate as she uttered these words to St. Gabriel.

Why this sober aspect of Advent? Because, to paraphrase Rowan Williams, when Jesus comes into the world it is unplanned, overwhelming, making a colossal difference. It satisfies out deepest longings, but we don’t know what it will involve, other than risk and pain, along with the restoration.

And so we can respond to Jesus by saying “No, thanks. I prefer my own darkness,” or we can say “Yes, I will take you, along with the risk and the pain.”

Either way, this is sobering if not scary stuff.

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The Trisagion

During Advent at St. Richard’s we will be using the hauntingly beautiful words and melody of the Trisagion (“Thrice Holy”) during the first portion of the service of the Word (ie, during the synaxis)  in our Eucharistic services.

Quoting from Howard Galley’s The Ceremonies of the Eucharist (p. 81):

The Trisagion is a text drawn from the entrance rite of the Byzantine liturgy. It became widely popular, and was taken into regular use by many other liturgies, both eastern and western. The chief exception is the Roman rite, in which it is used only on Good Friday. The present Prayer Book is the first Anglican liturgy to include it. The rubrics (p. 406) provide that it may be sung three times, which is recommended here, or antiphonally, which is the traditional western method….

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Renewing the Festive Center (again)

This, below, is a piece I wrote for the monthly newsletter of St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, where I am currently serving as Assistant (to the) Rector.

 

At the center of our insanely hectic lives, there must be leisure. In the middle of our mechanistic, frenetic modern world there must be festivity. At the heart of our active church, at the foundation of our busy families, there must be deep rest. There must be, that is, if we are going to survive.

We must, individually and corporately, renew the festive center, by which I mean that, instead of allowing the “microwave culture” (a phrase of Rev. Mary’s which I heard her utter within five minutes of meeting her) in which we live to crowd out life as it was meant to be lived, we must put “first things first.” We must “begin with the end in mind.” (Yes, I am appealing to all you Stephen Covey types.)

And what is our end? The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) describes it as “enjoying God forever.” Does that sound restful to you? If not, if it sounds boring or scary, then you might be misunderstanding the nature of the God we worship.

The classical Christian tradition of virtue (which baptizes and builds upon the life and practice of the likes of Plato and Aristotle, who lived in 5th century Athens) puts this same idea in terms of the beatific vision, in which humanity will one day participate in the very life of the Trinity in ways that we cannot now begin to imagine. Remember that, even though God does not have a body, this does not mean that God is less than embodied, but rather infinitely more: God so radically transcends our material world and existence (since they cannot begin to contain God) that it is accurate to say that he does not have a body.

The divine, infinite life of that community of persons called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is described by theologians as a dance. (Sounds festive, does it not?) This dance is not just movement (though it does include something like that) but rather all kinds of loving, relational dynamics that we cannot imagine. Suffice to say that they greatest party you have ever experienced (complete with all the “fun stuff” you experienced at that party) pales in comparison.

What’s crazy about this picture is that, according to classical Christian theology, this dance is what we are invited into, and we are invited into it now.

Learning this divine dance is what we are doing in the liturgy. To quote Peter Leithart (from Against Christianity),

Worship trains us in the steps for walking, for dancing rightly through life. Christian cult trains us in the protocols of life in the presence of God, and thereby, since all life is in the presence of God, acclimates the worship to Christian culture…. Christian ritual displays the world how we believe and hope it will be one day. Ritual displays to public view who goes where,how each of us fits into the whole, how the members of the body are knit into one while remaining many, how the melodic lines of each individual life harmonize into a communal symphony…. Through the rituals of worship, we begin to realize together who we are together: of course we are a sinful people who needs to break away from the world, to make a weekly Exodus from Egypt; of course we are an ignorant people who needs to be instructed and reminded each week of our language and our story; of course we are the children of the Heavenly Father, who has given all things freely in Hin Son and displays that gift in the gift of food; of course, we have been ingrafted into the community of the Trinity, for each worship service begins and ends in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and ends with the triune name spoken over us.

Is this how you imagine and understand what we do every Sunday morning at St. Richard’s? Here is true festivity and true rest.

 

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